12 min read

The case for lowering the voting age is probably better than you think.

Just look at the student activists in Parkland The Parkland student activists are doing an incredible job exercising their rights. So why can’t other young people like them vote?
The case for lowering the voting age is probably better than you think.

The Parkland student activists are doing an incredible job exercising their rights. They’re speaking out, they’re lobbying policymakers, and they’ve mobilized millions of people to join them in working to curb gun violence.

Emma Gonzalez calling BS on the gun lobby.

So why can’t all these students vote?

One curious feature of our political system is that everyone born after November 6, 2000 can’t vote this year. This seems natural and acceptable. It shouldn’t be.

Arguments about whether or not minors should vote have always struck a nerve with me. It’s probably because I’m a civics nerd at heart: In high school, I convinced my friends to sign up for an American government elective that hadn’t run in years, I was class president, I dropped off voter registration forms with students when they turned 18, and I even amended the student government constitution to make that voter registration project a part of the job for students who came after me.

So, yeah, I think voting is important. And I find all the arguments against extending the right to vote to teenagers to be without merit. Under examination, they fall apart. And they echo the same mean-spirited arguments that have kept the ballot out of other people’s hands for generations.

And to be clear, these aren’t theoretical discussions. Takoma Park, MD already lowered the voting age for municipal elections to 16. So has Hyattsville, MD. Other cities may follow suit. And many states already allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries provided they’ll be 18 by the general election.

The students in Parkland make it clear: we should go further.

Voting is about who counts, not just how good you are at voting

Vox’s Matt Yglesias wrote about lowering the voting age in 2015, arguing that there are already many ways people under 18 participate in politics, including knocking on doors, making financial contributions to candidates, and lobbying legislators. And he argues that the right to vote, unlike the right to drive, is not based on competence.

But the idea of lowering the voting age can seem odd at first. As adults, we like to see ourselves as separate from the world of teenagers. And we like to think that we’ve grown a lot since our teen years, including, perhaps, politically.

But I don’t think those sentiments matter when it comes to whether or not someone should be allowed to vote. The right to vote tells us that we count. And that politicians must be responsive to our demands.

In many ways, voting is considered the minimum right in a democracy. That seems uncontroversial. But then it follows: if someone can exercise other rights, shouldn’t they also be able to exercise the right to vote? And if they have to fulfill other obligations to the state, shouldn’t that come with the right to vote?

That was the argument for the 26th amendment during the Vietnam War. If 18-year-olds could be drafted and die for their country, they should damn well be able to vote. Black veterans from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War and onward have similarly worked to expand and defend their right to vote. And the Women’s Suffrage movement was aided, in part, by the greater role women took on in supporting the war effort during World War I.

Good signage!

Today, 17-year-olds can enlist in the Armed Forces, though doing so requires parental consent. Not that that matters much. If your kid is a few months away from making the decision without you at 18, will you really say no? So at 17, you can get ready for basic training. But you can’t vote on your Commander in Chief.

The right to drive varies by state. The youngest drivers can be found in South Dakota, where people aged 14 years and three months who prove they have the ability to safely operate a multi-thousand-pound vehicle at high speeds can do so. They just can’t drive to the polling station and vote. They have to wait three years and nine months for that.

Before they get their license, however, they, along with any American, can exercise their right to trade their labor for money, something the rest of us call “work.” The Fair Labor Standards Act generally sets the minimum age for employment at 14. But some states are fine with 12-year-olds working in agriculture outside school hours. Teenagers’ income, of course, is subject to taxation. So our government can hold their money, but won’t let them hold a ballot.

So, in my mind, that’d put a good voting age at something like 14. About the time someone enters high school. But, I can see an argument for lower voting ages, too. Mostly because the counter-arguments are so, so bad.

The average teenage voter is better than than the worst adult voter

It’s easy to imagine that teenagers would make uninformed voting choices. You know, like adults do. To put the argument another way, teenagers should enjoy the same right we do to make wildly uninformed voting choices and political judgments.

Seriously, picture your worst voter:

A brain and a ballot, my good dude.

Maybe it’s your absolute political opposite. Maybe it’s somebody who blindly votes the party line. Maybe it’s somebody who votes for president then mashes the buttons for their rest of their ballot and writes in Donald Duck for county solicitor.

Really, picture that worst voter.

Then tell me every teenager in America would be a worse voter then them.

You can’t. Because they wouldn’t. Neither would the majority of teenagers. Neither would even a significant minority of teenagers.

Teenagers are people. So are Millennials. So are Boomers and members of the Silent Generation. The idea that we can make sweeping, definitive, universal judgments about how people in an age-based demographic would approach voting is just stereotyping. Yeah, there are tendencies, which I’ll get to later, but there are no universals and there are no special thresholds of maturity or objectivity that people magically pass when they turn 18 that turn them into good voters.

If teenagers aren’t mature enough, categorically, to vote, then surely there are older voters whose lack of maturity should disqualify them from voting, too.

But of course, no one would argue for that because there’s no such thing as a maturity requirement for voting. Nor are voters required to be intelligent, virtuous, or even nice people.

Whatever it is you might think teenagers lack that should disqualify them from voting, I can find a large group of adults of varying political loyalties who share those same characteristics. No one is suggesting those adults should be blocked from voting. And blocking teenagers from voting based on such weak justifications is wrong for the same reasons: it denies them their agency and worth as people. The only fair, logically consistent conclusion, in my mind, is to extend the right to vote to teenagers.

Every parent already influences how their children vote

Another thread of argumentation against extending voting rights to teenagers assumes that parents will force their children to vote a certain way.

First, let’s be clear: asshole parents will attempt to force their children to vote a certain way. Most parents won’t care because they have better things to do like put food on the table. Or they’ll treat it like any other relative voting and assume it’s something they can influence, but that is ultimately not their damn business.

Second, we are all already influenced by our parents when we vote. Maybe you vote the same way your parents do. Maybe you take after one parent, but not the other. Maybe you rebelled and stuck with it. Maybe your family’s political disagreements shape your own views.

To that end, here’s a counterfactual to consider: imagine a very old voter who goes straight party line just like their mother or father did. Forget about which party it might be. They are voting exactly the same way their parents did because that’s what their parents told them to do. And they may be in their 70s. And they may have never sat down and challenged their own political beliefs. I don’t think they should be disqualified from voting because they’re still doing what their parents told them to do, so I don’t think teenagers should be either based on the false assumption that some parents will try to force them to vote a specific way.

Finally, as a practical matter, voting booths are private spaces. We have all bullshitted our parents about who we’re hanging out with or what we’re doing at one time or another. Asserting some private, individual space is a natural part of growing up. All of that day-to-day child and parent negotiating is far more difficult than simply telling mom or dad you voted based on your values or that it’s simply none of their business.

Voting is about who counts in society, not just our individual judgments

The great value of voting for society is that it requires the political system to be responsive to people who show up to the polls. We all don’t have to serve in office, or work for the government or lobby or give money to candidates, but if we vote, we keep the political system’s excesses in check and we reward leaders who have our collective best interests at heart. Not every time, but over time. And not always under our current system, but ideally under a democratic one.

Allowing teenagers to vote wouldn’t dramatically alter our political landscape. What it would do is introduce a new constituency to the political calculus leaders perform every day as they cast votes, make demands and strike compromises.

To cite a specific example: Social Security won’t be there for me or people younger than me when we turn 70, at least not in the same way it’ll be there for my mother and father. (You’re welcome, Boomers!) But that doesn’t mean teenagers will go to voting booths armed with retirement calculators, rationally voting in their self-interest. And it doesn’t mean politicians will make empty promises to teenagers about Social Security any more or less than they make empty promises to Boomers about the same exact thing. But the political system as a whole would be more responsive to such longer-term concerns if teenagers could also vote, just as it’d be more responsive to affordable education, gun violence, climate change, justice reform, fair wages and other issues that disproportionately affect younger people.

Dismissing teenagers’ worth as voters is condescending (at best)

Yet another thread would argue that allowing younger people to vote would dumb down our political discourse. To which I would retort, you think it can get worse?

Also, be careful what kind of rhetoric you’re dabbling in when you start talking about an entire class of people’s ability to participate in politics.

Women have been told they are too distracted to vote.

Anti-women’s suffrage cartoon.

And too easily scared of mice to legislate.

Wow these are bad.

Immigrants have been told that they are too drunk.

Political cartoon portraying Irish and German voters as drunkards.

And black men that their race is low, during our first incomplete attempt at Reconstruction.

Anti-Reconstruction cartoon from 1878. Not even the worst. More here.

More charitably, some may assume younger people are more impressionable or manipulatable than adults. But is the average teenager more impressionable than the most impressionable adult? No way. And does that really matter to such a degree that teenagers should be denied the right to vote? And if so, is there another group of people—perhaps Boomers who think Facebook conspiracy theory posts are real—who are equally so impressionable that we must shield them from voting?

Indeed, there’s a whole body of literature about the so-called “third person effect.” We tend to think that everyone else is more impressionable to the mass media — and to political media — than we are. It turns out, we’re all pretty impressionable. But in our own heads, we feel like we’re being very rational. Regardless, it’s wrong to say that any group of people should be categorically denied a right because they aren’t good enough to exercise it. That’s simply undemocratic. And teenagers deserve to be just as gloriously inspired, frustrated and confused as the rest of us when they go to the voting booth.

Political algebra is lame, democracy is vibrant and awesome

Younger voters tend to lean Democratic, so, the assumption goes, teenagers would also lean Democratic. But there’s nothing intrinsic about youth that makes someone loyal to American political parties.

Indeed, there a generational tides when it comes to how people vote.

Pew on the partisan breakdown of generational voting.

And not to cherry-pick, but in 1984, all the youths somehow put aside their purported liberal bias and overwhelmingly voted for Ronald Reagan. Go figure.

At the same time, an argument based in partisanship falls apart when you consider everyone who could vote. Should young conservatives in Utah be denied the right to vote simply because young people in Vermont lean liberal? Or the other way around? Of course not.

The most important thing here is not political party calculus. It’s introducing another constituency to the electorate. It would be up to each party — and candidate — to figure out how that should shape their agenda, their campaigns and how they govern.

Finally, take the flip side of the youth argument: if older people tend to lean conservative, is it wrong for the government to help them vote in greater numbers? If so, why do we commonly offer free rides to the polls through services that target seniors? They’re citizens, too, just like those car-driving, tax-paying teenagers. They all deserve to vote.

Let my people vote!

I was an argumentative teenager (shocker) and occasionally the adults in my life would resort to the worst argument: you’ll understand when you’re older. It’s a great way to punt the conversation a couple years if a teenager just made a good point you don’t want to deal with, but there’s some truth there, too.

Age and experience do make us wiser. Ideally, we become more empathetic people, better workers, better partners, better friends. But I don’t think growing older makes us better voters. And that’s okay.

Voting is about welcoming people into society and acknowledging that their voices count. If you can serve, if you can drive, if you can work and pay taxes, your voice should count. And not in the speak up and be heard kind of way, but in the way the rest of us enjoy: when politicians are thinking about the tough decisions they have to make, they need to consider and even worry about what we will think when the next election day rolls around.

Even if you don’t exercise your rights, you are counted

I remember one of the teachers in my high school chasing after another student urging him to sign up to vote. I never had her as a teacher or interacted with her much, but I guess we were part of the unofficial “we give a shit about politics” club in Lacey Township, New Jersey. I just caught the tail-end of the conversation as they walked by my classroom. It wasn’t going well. She earnestly told him that signing up to vote was the best way to ensure that his ideas and needs were counted by society. He told her, in so many words, that it didn’t matter.

Thinking back, the student she was talking to was probably already lost to politics. His life was rougher than most of ours and I’m sure he heard a lot of broken promises from authority figures. Why would he want to bother with a whole other set of broken promises from politicians?

Maybe if he was 14 instead of 18, their conversation would have been different. But even it wasn’t, it would still matter if other teenagers like him could vote. People his age would be counted when it was time to make public policy. That sense of being counted — and the power of the ballot — that is the ultimate value of extending the right to vote to more people.

It’s the reason Rev. Dr. Barber led the Moral Mondays marches in North Carolina when GOP legislators tried to suppress the rights of black voters. It’s the reason states are moving to restore voting rights back to ex-felons. It’s the reason more states are moving toward participation-friendly policies like automatically registering new voters, including teenagers, and voting by mail. Voting should be safe, secure and easy. Barriers to voting should be seen as more than a violation of our democratic spirit, they should be seen as immoral.

It’s odd to say this, but age is a huge, largely unquestioned barrier to full democratic participation in American politics. There are more than 16.6 million disenfranchised people aged 14 to 17 in America. That’s more people than live in Pennsylvania, our 5th largest state, which gets 18 members of Congress and 20 electoral votes.

And the arguments people use against teenagers voting are the same lame, intellectually empty arguments people have used for generations to block others from enjoying the same rights they have.

We call BS.

Democracy is a great thing. The Parkland students are reminding us that we should try it some time.

Updated form a personal blog I wrote in 2015.

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